14 October 2010

Mike Penner/Christine Daniels: the sad story of a transsexual media pioneer

Slowly, the American media is starting to process the sad story of transgendered journalist Mike Penner, who detransitioned before committing suicide in November 2009, 31 months after he announced in the LA Times that he was becoming a woman – namely, Christine Daniels.

Penner – I use this name, and male pronouns (excluding when living as Christine) as he stated before his death that this was how he wished to be addressed – joined the LA Times in 1983, going on to cover a range of national and international sporting events, including Major League Baseball, the World Cup and the Olympics with considerable wit, poetry and insight. Consequently, Penner was well known (the LA Times has a circulation of over 600,000) on coming out – which he did in a sensitive article entitled ‘Old Mike, New Christine’.

Penner described how it had taken ‘more than 40 years, a million tears and hundreds of hours of soul-wrenching therapy’ to find the courage to come out to ‘a world whose knowledge of transsexuals usually begins and ends with Jerry Springer’s exploitation circus.’ Penner displayed his awareness that other people would need time to adapt ‘as I move from Mike to Christine’; his sports desk colleagues’ kind, humorous reactions led him to conclude that ‘This could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.’

Daniels’ euphoria gave way to a complex range of emotions. ‘Old Mike, New Christine’ prompted a thousand positive e-mails, and her editor, Randy Harvey, persuaded her to blog her transition under the title ‘Woman in Progress’. This made Daniels a heroine to a transsexual community that desperately needed role models, but her blog never mentioned a crucial fact, too painful to publicly document: Daniels’ wife, fellow Times writer Lynn Dillman, filed for divorce on Daniels’ first day working as female.

Daniels’ relationship with the transgender community became anything but beautiful. In demand for speeches to LGBT groups, advocates tried to prepare her for the difficulties of public transition. Daniels was deeply hurt when sports writer Paul Oberjuerge criticised her ‘dress-up role playing’ on the San Bernardino County Sun’s website, and mortified by her disastrous encounter with Vanity Fair photographer Robert Maxwell.

Being judged on appearances is a thorny subject for transsexual women, and Daniels was distraught when some suggested that the contents of her blog facilitated such judgement. Daniels fell out with Susan Stanton, who worried that she focused too much on hair, make-up and clothes, reinforcing stereotypes that have long been used to attack transsexual women. Daniels ended the friendship, emailing Stanton: ‘I’m a real woman … not a trans-anything who needs to quote-unquote represent some undefined community. For the first time in my life, I’m being true to myself, and my true self loves makeup, clothes and shoes.’

Daniels complained of being ‘used’ by the ‘community’, and in early 2008, withdrew from public appearances in LGBT contexts. Her final LA Times byline appeared in April 2008: she was hospitalised in June, doctors determining that the stresses of public transition, the death of her mother and her ex-wife’s continuing distance were manifesting themselves as abdominal pain.

‘Woman in Progress’ was mysteriously removed from the LA Times site, and deleted from the archives. Daniels stopped taking hormones and demanded to be addressed as Mike Penner again, pulling out of scheduled Sex Reassignment Surgery. Penner returned to the LA Times in October, but the desired reconciliation with his wife did not materialise. A year later, he killed himself.

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Having embarked on a similar venture, I felt an absolute terror of recognition on reading Penner’s story. After considering our differing ages, backgrounds and likely level of prior engagement with transgender culture and concerns, I felt comfortable that I could avoid a similar fate under the new media spotlight. Then, I felt compelled to write about it: Penner’s story seemed a terrible moral fable, illsutrating the terrible ends that can meet pioneers, but it is far too complex to draw any easy conclusions.

Stories of people who abandon transition or reverse their Sex Reassignment Surgery can attract a lot of attention from the conservative media in both the US and Britain, who, in the recent past, have not often represented transsexual or transgendered subjects in a positive light. Some publications and websites initially cast Penner’s detransition and death (as often with detransition stories) as ‘transsexual regret’, using it to illustrate the dangers – as they saw it – of transgressing the gender norms often upheld by, and integral to their publications (and the advertisements that fund them).

Such stories also appeal to certain feminist opponents of gender reassignment (arguments which are well documented elsewhere), uncomfortable both with the idea that biology is not necessarily destiny for those born male-bodied, who might infiltrate ‘womyn’s’ spaces, but also by the construct of ‘femininity’ – a construct often treated scornfully, as Julia Serano explains, by certain men, feminists, lesbians, gays and queers, especially when manifested in someone, like Penner, born male.

For me, Penner’s experiences with other transsexual and transgender people constitute the saddest part of the story. Most pre-operative male-to-female (MtF) transsexuals experiment with high-femme styles at some point, as part of what is essentially a second puberty (hormonally and socially): their style may well evolve, but these adult explorations of hyper-femininity (as a response to being barred from such exploration in their teens) inform stereotypes of MtF transsexuals and attract the most scorn.

Understandable, but disheartening that members of the transsexual community – me included, at times, when I’ve been with another MtF person whose appearance has attracted hostile attention – can internalise these criticisms and use them to attack other people in similar positions, undermining them for reinforcing stereotypes when they are genuinely expressing their gendered feelings at that point in their lives.

If we learn anything from this, it should be that making people’s lives subservient to ideological principles can have terrible consequences. Now, I contradict myself, arguing against the abstraction of Penner’s human experiences to illustrate a point about the perils of using human experiences to illustrate a point, but I’m a human being, and, as such, not always consistent. Whilst we should be vigilant against hypocrisy, demanding that individuals must always fit to theoretical expectations, and attacking them whenever we perceive them to fail, is not a fair way to treat anyone.